From Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, the Second Title in Amnesty International’s Global Ethics Book Series – Now Available!

August 15, 2011

Bestselling author Rory Stewart and political economist Gerald Knaus examine the impact of large-scale interventions, from Kosovo to Afghanistan in Can Intervention Work?the second title in the Amnesty International Global Ethics Book Series. Below, an excerpt:

Our experience suggests the following rules of thumb: that interveners must distinguish brutally between the factors they can control, the dangers they can avoid, and the dangers they can neither control nor avoid (whether permanent features of the place or specific to the crisis). An outsider can—indeed, should—provide generous resources, manpower, equipment, encouragement, and support. Courage, thought, and pre-planning are relevant. But they are not enough on their own. The best way of minimizing the danger of any intervention is to proceed carefully, to invest heavily in finding out about the specific context, particularly after the intervention, and to define concrete and not abstract goals.

Power and authority must be given to local leadership through elections as soon as possible. Only local leaders have the necessary ingredient of knowing the situation well, over many years and in all kinds of conditions; only they can get around the dangers that cannot be avoided, and skillfully respond to them. Local leaders who are appointed by foreigners, rather than elected, will find it very hard to assume responsibility. The person intervening should not be so obsessive or neurotic about the activity as to ignore the signs that the intervention has become too dangerous, or the mission impossible, and that it is time to regroup, pause, or even withdraw.

Since intervention is a techne—to take a grand term from Aristotle—or, in more normal language, an art not a science, such advice will always seem underwhelming. Just as the military principle that “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” is seen by soldiers as an insight of great life-saving wisdom, but by a civilian as a glimpse of the blindingly obvious, so too advice on intervention. Few would have any theoretical disagreements with our recommendations. Even fewer would be surprised by them. The challenge is not to lay out the principles; it is to convey just how rarely they are implemented and why, how much damage has been done through ignoring them, and how difficult they are to uphold.

The difficulty is to show people how intervention—with its elaborate theory, intricate rituals, astonishing sacrifices and expenditure; its courage and grandeur and fantasy—can often resemble the religion of the Aztecs or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to show how bad intervention can be: how far more absurd, rotten, counterproductive than any satirist could suggest or caricaturist portray.  And that even when all the leaders have recognized that a policy is not working, how impossible it often seems for them to organize withdrawal.

An incremental approach may seem simply common sense.  But overconfident policy-makers continue to be seduced repeatedly by the belief in the magic powers of planning, resources, and charismatic leadership.  Intervention may be a necessary, indispensable ingredient of the international system.  It is certainly capable, as in the Balkans, of doing good.  And yet how easily it falls into excess.  This is why the ultimate focus of these essays is on the particular context, temptations, predilections, and neuroses of twenty-first-century interveners.  Rory’s essay focuses exclusively on Afghanistan; Gerald’s largely on Bosnia.  But we hope they carry broader lessons because these essays aim to offer not an anthropology of the country into which the West is intervening, but an anthropology of the West—an anthropology of ourselves.

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